If you want to hike in the Andes, it's pretty hard to go wrong. The longest continental mountain range in the world spans over 4,000 miles, includes ample 20,000-foot peaks, the world's highest active volcano, and, of course, Machu Picchu. Go at the wrong time, and these destinations may be packed with tourists.
To guarantee the mountains to yourself, try the Quilotoa Loop, 125 miles of trails through the Ecuadorian Andes just west of Volcan Cotopaxi. Thanks to its isolation, many of the indigenous villages are tourist-free and untouched by time. The trail travels into Ecuador's backcountry, through Andean hills, valleys, countryside, volcanoes, and small Quechua communities.
Damon Corkin, co-owner of travel company Andean Discovery suggests starting in the north and working your way towards Laguna Quilotoa — an impressive crater lake.
Day 1: Quito-Insilivi
The trailhead begins in Cuinco Panapass, a 2.5-hour drive from Quito. The first day is a three-hour hike that passes through hilly farmland in the shadow of snow-capped mountains. Local villagers have been known to invite strangers in for coffee and homemade bread. If you are here on a Monday, take an extra day and hike to the indigenous market in Guantualo.
Where to stay: Llullu Llama Lodge
This mountain retreat is a restored indigenous farmhouse that has unexpected amenities on the Andean trail — hot tub, sauna, Turkish bath — and is also gorgeous, with mahogany floors, wood-burning fireplaces, and thick alpaca blankets that will make you forget you are in the middle of nowhere.
Day 2: Insilivi-Chugchilan
The first full day of hiking follows the Toachi River, first descending into the canyon and then climbing back out. The Toachi canyon's trail takes you across log and suspension bridges, and links to a road that will take you to Chinalo and its handcrafted furniture workshop and showroom. Continue to Chugchilan, a village where you can rent horses and ride into the cloud forest of the Ilinizas Reserve – which protects almost 150,000 hectares of biodiverse cloud forest.
Where to stay: Mama Hilda
Mama Hilda is a family-run lodge where you'll be treated like a part of the matriarch — Hilda's — family. You can drink with the locals at Hilda's bar, which is run on an honor system: You take what you'd like and pay when you check out. Or you can choose to lounge on the porch in the hammocks while you wait for the best part, the fresh homemade pasta and dessert made in the nearby Italian monastery.
Day 3: Chugchilan-Quilotoa
This six-hour trek ends at what is sure to be the highlight of your trip, the region's beloved Quilotoa Lake. The caldera rim reaches an elevation of almost 13,000 feet, and the crater lake, which is more than 800 feet deep, is believed by the locals to have no bottom but instead to offer a portal to the underworld. There are kayaks and canoes to rent, or, if you can brave the cold, swim in the emerald, alkaline waters.
Where to stay: Shalala Lodge
Part of a sustainable community tourism project, Shalala Lodge is owned and operated by 65 families from the community of Quilotoa. The lodge boasts a gasp-inducing lookout platform over the edge of the crater, 12,500-feet up, where it sits.
Day 4: Quilotoa-Tigua
Bid adios to Laguna Quilotoa and descend on a full day trek to La Posada de Tigua. This 19th-century working hacienda and farm is located near the town of Tigua, which is renowned for its painters. These artisans preserve rural Andean life by painting colorful landscapes, ceremonies, and festivals on flat, sheepskin canvas, as well as masks and drums.
Where to stay: Posada de Tigua Organic Farm
La Posada de Tigua is an eco-friendly inn, where a water turbine generates the electricity. Owners Margarita and Marco treat you to farm to table meals including roast mutton, lamb, and fresh produce from the on-site organic farm. After dinner you can sip canelazo — a hot cinnamon drink — by the campfire.
Day 5: Tigua to Quito
If you have time, you might add on a visit to the Galapagos Islands, 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador. Aside from Darwin's finches, these volcanic islands host easy-to-spot species of giant tortoises, marine iguanas, penguins, blue-footed boobies, and sea lions. With just a few days, you can surf Isabella's coast, snorkel with sharks at Kicker Rock, hike Santa Cruz's lava tubes, and visit the Charles Darwin Research Center.